Kedoshim Tihyu: Holiness lies in the interconnected world, in our relationships and our responsibilities

Parashat Kedoshim takes its name from the phrase it begins with: “Kedoshim tihyu, ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem” – You will be Kadosh, as I the Eternal your God Am Kadosh.  (Leviticus 19:2)

The root K.D.Sh appears 152 times in the Book of Leviticus, and while usually translated as “separate/distinct” or “holy”, it has a richer and more complex life within Jewish thought than to be boundaried in such a way. It is difficult to fully explicate this word, in part because Kedushah is an attribute of the essence of God, and something we human beings are to pursue in our behaviour and being, the result of such pursuit is attachment to the Divine, understood in mystical tradition as the ultimate goal of all our spiritual strivings.

The 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Eliyahu deVidas explains in his mystical and meditative work (Reishit Chochma) that fleeing evil and doing good creates within us the ability to receive holiness from God. Holiness is a Divine response to our actions, and inhabits and shapes our soul, creating the possibility for communion with God.

Holiness exists in two different frameworks in bible: one is the sanctity of the priesthood and temple rituals which is the focus of much of this book of Leviticus; the second is the sanctity of peoplehood, of the whole community, as is underscored with the first verse of this sidra – “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You (voi) shall be holy, for I, YHVH your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2).”. It is this second framework that speaks to us. Holiness is an aspiration for a community much more than a state for priest and temple. The focus moves a little away from the ritual rooted in the sacrificial system and more towards the ethical rooted in community living.

Avoiding evil and doing good seems to the main thrust of much of what is contained in the apex of the holiness school of guidance, found in Leviticus chapter 19.(Full holiness Code found Leviticus 17-26) According to Sefer haChinuch, there are 13 positive and 38 negative mitzvot in sidra kedoshim, guiding us towards doing good things, and away from improper behaviour.

We are used to categorising these mitzvot (commandments) in Kedoshim as either Ritual ones or Ethical ones, but there is another way to see these imperatives that does not divide them into different and separate types, but functioning instead together, as part of a whole and complex system.

The commandments that guide us towards holiness can be understood as being ecological in structure –together they are a description of the web of relationships that unite the people, the land, the environment including both flora and fauna, and God.  Together they both set the balance that allows each component to flourish, each constituent to be in harmonious relationship.

There are curious parallels that signal the interconnectedness if one looks – for example the law of pe’ah forbids us to cut the edges of the land (19:9) and the edges of the human head and beard (19:27). People and land are treated in the same way, albeit for different motivations.

The section of bible known to us as “holiness code” (Leviticus 17-26) can be understood as a coherent and unified corpus, which aims to bring together –  through varied and diverse subject matter, terminology and historical perspective – the connection of people and land. Specifically here people and land which each have a distinct relationship with God. The people are to aspire towards ideal behaviour; the land is to embody the sacred.  Each generation is to learn and understand the principles that underlie this text, to draw out and fulfil those principles in their own time and their own context. The texts play with time. This is the generation of the desert being told how to behave in the land they have settled. We are simultaneously at Sinai shortly after the exodus from Egypt, in the desert as a travelling and unrooted people, and in the Land of Israel as the people who are responsible for the welfare of both land and society.

The effect of these time distortions within the text is to reinforce the timelessness of the message and of those to whom the message is addressed – to remind us that each generation of the people Israel is to understand that we too are part of the web of relationship. Just as the Pesach Haggadah reminds us that each of us is to consider ourselves part of the generation that was freed from Egyptian slavery, so here we are reminded that the relationship between people, land and God is one we are firmly held within.

This year the message of the ecology, the web of the relationships and the connections between plants, animals, people, and the environment, has never been so powerful to me, and the balances and imbalances between these relationships cry out for our attention.

We are living in a time of climate change happening with unprecedented speed. Everything is being affected and generally not for the good of the world. Be it the insect populations diminishing or disappearing due to insecticides, or else the changes in weather which have disrupted their breeding; or the crops blighted by drought or to-heavy rains; be it the animals whose habitats are changing around them, leaving them ill equipped to survive, or the people who face tsunami or cyclones, or drought or blistering heat – we are once again forced to pay attention to the interdependability of our world, and to note how our behaviour is unbalancing not only our own context but the future world of our children.

When one reads this section of Leviticus not to tease out the ritual or ethical behaviours we feel ourselves commanded to follow, but to become more fully conscious of what it means to hear the imperative to holiness that we must pursue in order to come closer to God, it is impossible to ignore how the impetus to Kedushah is situated within the web of relationships between people, animals and land. The book of Genesis (2:15) tells us we have a responsibility to steward the land, to keep it in good order and fully functioning, we have to work it responsibly and mindfully. The book of Deuteronomy reminds us that should we not care properly for the land and for the people we will be expelled from living in the land, reminds us too that God is watching how people treat the land that is so special to God (Deut 11:12) And all the books of bible repeatedly remind us that we are not inheritors of this world by right, but that we are privileged to live here and have a role we must play, relationships we must nurture, transmission we must be part of. How we live our lives matters not just to us or our close family or generation, how we live our lives is part of the ecology of the world and how it will thrive – or not

Imitatio Dei, the imitation of the attributes of God, holds a central place in Jewish thinking, right from the creation of people b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. We cannot absorb God nor become God, we cannot understand or encompass God, but we still have the obligation to come closer to Kedushah. The Talmud phrases it best, I think, like this:  “Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina said: (Deuteronomy 13:5) “After God you shall walk.” And is it possible for a person to walk after the Presence of God? And doesn’t it already say (Deuteronomy 4:24) “Because God is a consuming flame”? Rather, [it means] to walk after the characteristics of God. Just as God clothed the naked [in the case of Adam and Chava]… so, too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God visited the sick [in the case of Avraham after his brit milah]…so, too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God comforted the mourners [in the case of Yitzhak after Avraham’s passing]…so, too, should you comfort the mourners. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God buried the dead [in the case of Moshe]…so, too, should you bury the dead” (Sotah 14a:3-4)

It is a lovely description of how to imitate God to make the world a better place. But as our liturgy reminds us three times a day in the Aleinu prayer, it is our duty “letaken olam b’malchut Shaddai” To repair and maintain the world with the sovereignty of God. This is bigger than the cases suggested by Rav Hama – for the sovereignty of God is more than the relationships between people, important as they are. Instead I think the phrase is referring to the Kedushah we find in the Holiness Section of Leviticus – we must maintain and repair the relationships not simply bein Adam v’Chavero (between people) but bein Adam v’Olam – between people and the living beings – animal and vegetable – on this earth.

How we treat the earth – the rainforests with its trees often logged mercilessly and the environment of the animals who live there decimated and unsustainable; the rivers we clog with chemicals or detritus, the seas filled with plastic and becoming toxic to so many who swim in them, be they small turtles or huge orcas; the air in cities that are filled with pollutants, the fields we drench with fertilizers or insecticides, the animals and birds we so carelessly damage, the environment we so thoughtlessly injure, the casual littering and the mindless consumption of limited resources – all of this is in direct contradiction to what we are told about Kedushah, the holiness we should be striving to attain.

In London this week a 16 year old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, came to speak to Parliament and also to the many protestors of Climate Change who brought our cities to a standstill as they sought to persuade the government, by non-violent action, to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions to zero. The group “Extinction Rebellion” which has a Jewish section also held a Seder outside the Parliament buildings, linking the traditional ten plagues to the many threats to the earth if greenhouse gas emissions are not massively reduced, and global warming brought below two degrees.  They linked too to the damage to seas and air and land we are increasingly seeing happen. (The group is also protesting in Milan, Rome and Torino and in other countries too).

Reactions were mixed to the protests – in part because of the inconvenience caused to daily living, in part to vested interests, in part to political games-playing. But what became clearer to me was not just the science the protesters were drawing our attention to, but the religious values we have been ignoring for so long.

For when we categorise mitzvot into ethical or ritual, meaningful or opaque, spiritual or mundane, we mask over something else – the inter-relatedness of our world, which the mitzvot are designed to help  us to understand if only we would pay attention, the web of relationships between us and our environment, between animals and plants and humans and land and God.

When God tells the people that we must strive for Kedushah, an essential attribute of the divine, we often put this into the domain of the heavens, and forget that we live on the earth. We forget that the web of relationships is planet wide, that it involves trees and plants and soil and animals and insects….   Holiness demands from us the awareness of these relationships, and a response that values them.  “Le’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai” – to maintain and repair the world with divine ruling” – that is out task, and it is not in the heavens or far from us, but in our everyday interactions with the created world.

(sermon given 2019)

 

 

Tzav- we need to understand commandedness through the lens of both halacha and aggadah or we will miss the point completely

Sermon given 2018 Lev Chadash Milano

Every so often the Jewish world erupts into a debate about authenticity and flung into the mix are accusations about what Torah is, what mitzvot are, and who has the right to decide.

In parashat Tzav we find God telling Moses “Command Aaron  and his sons to do these rituals”  There follows a description of the five sacrifices the priests are to perform, the limits to the acceptable consumption of the meat of the sacrifices, and the details about how Aaron and his sons were to be prepared for ordination as priests.

The power of that imperative “Tzav!” which introduces the details of the ritual reverberates across the centuries.  To this day Jews view ourselves as commanded, and Rabbinic Judaism has grounded itself on the Halachah of mitzvot, what they are and how to do them, while Jewish theology and the meaning of WHY we live in this way, essentially remains in the area of aggadah.

It is the tension between these two ways of ‘being Jewish” that causes us so many problems. For Eugene Borowitz, possibly the most influential Reform Jewish thinker, “While Halachah seeks to define just what constitutes one’s obligation, the aggadah often attempts to supply the theological and historical foundation of Jewish duty” or as AJ Heschel formulated it, Halacha becomes Jewish behaviour while the motivation for these behaviours is aggadah.

How we approach God is important, and to know that there is more than one way to do this within Judaism, offers a validity to what we know Judaism to be – a variety of ways in which to be authentically Jewish, rather than a doctrinal or behavioural “orthodoxy” which itself creates heresy.

Halacha gives form and structure, provides a system for us to live and work within. Aggadah  is harder to define, but must express our limitless striving to relate to God in the world.  Essentially Halacha – and the system of mitzvot that Rabbinic Judaism cherishes – prescribes for us how to behave in the world while Aggadah helps us formulate our aspirations for what life is about, helps give meaning to our existence, and inspires us to continue the search for relationship with God.

The Rabbinic Judaism within whose system we all now function began as a wonderfully dynamic melding of both halachic and aggadic discourse. Talmud is its apotheosis.  Within Talmud there is very little interest in proclaiming what the halachah actually is, and indeed any such ruling is hardly ever found. Instead we have a variety of opinions recorded, debated, refuted or supported with biblical verses or teachings from either inside or outside the text of the Talmud itself, and this rich raw material becomes the foundation of how Judaism could develop.  Halachah and aggadah coexist in this system, each informing and enriching the other, providing balance and dynamism.   The two systems probably only begin to diverge in the Geonic Period (c600 – 1000 CE) and with the codifying of the Oral Torah we find that the system of halachah and mitzvot becomes rigid and stultifies, while the creative emotive and wide-ranging  aggadic system often gets relegated to a less important status. Yet, as Heschel wrote: ”To maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of halachah is as erroneous as to maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of aggadah. The interrelationship of halachah and aggadah is the very heart of Judaism. Halachah without aggadah is dead, aggadah without halachah is wild.”

We Jews see ourselves as a commanded and covenanted people, a people who perform mitzvot, who follow the directives of God with whom we are in a covenant of obligation. Yet we cannot quite agree on the Who is doing the commanding, nor what the commandments actually are, let alone how we must carry them out authentically.

Is the commander the God of Torah – and if so, which of God’s commands in bible are even applicable to us, let alone take precedence? Is the commander the God of later literature, of the Nevi’im, the Prophetic books and the Ketuvim (Writings)?   Is the Commander the Voice of God we discern in our lives and through our experiences? Is it the Voice of our tradition and history, the chain of which we are but one generational link? Is the voice emanating from our modern ethical understanding of the world? There are as many answers are there are Jews formulating them – in the words of Leonard Cohen in “Who by Fire”, a treatment of the famous Rosh Hashanah prayer:  “And who shall I say is calling?”

Yet that word follows us – Tzav!  We are a commanded and covenanted people.

How are we to understand it?  Mitzvah is not “the law” – or at least it is only one of ten biblical terms used to describe regulation of the people. There are also “din” “tzedakah” “davar” “mishmeret” “torah” “Mishpat” “chok”  “edut”  “ot” in bible, terms often used interchangeably in the biblical text, reminding us that the guidelines come in various ways and are just that – guidelines. Even the word “halachah” comes from the root lalechet – to go or to walk, and Torah is related to the word for parents – the people who guide us and help us become our best selves.

Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, the great scholar and 1st-2nd century Tanna (the early generation of teacher) developed the idea that the language of Torah is divinely revealed, so that there was semantic significance, or at least midrashic potential, to every word and every letter in the Torah – nothing in it was a mistake or an addition, the document was in every sense divine. His slightly younger peer, Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha took a different view – he said that the Torah speaks to human beings in human language, with repetitions and metaphor and so on.  The views of both continued into the development of Judaism, yet it seems that Rabbi Akiva’s view took the ascendant over time, and that while Yishmael developed principles for understanding the divine intention, the notion of “Torah miSinai” hardened over time into what people generally take it to mean today – that everything from Torah to rabbinic teshuvot today were revealed to Moses at Sinai

The origin of this idea can be found not in Torah but in Talmud: “Rabbi Levi bar Hama said that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said “ God said to Moses: Ascend to me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the stone tablets and the Torah and the mitzvah that I have written that you may teach them” (Exodus 24:12). What is the meaning of this verse?  “Tablets of stone”-these are the Ten Commandments, “the Torah”-this is the Torah (five books of Moses), “the Mitzvah”- this is the Mishnah,” which I have written”- these are the Prophets and the Writings, “that you may teach them”- this is the Gemara. And it teaches that they were all given to Moses on Sinai (TB Brachot 5a).

From this aggadic text comes the idea that everything, ALL aspects of Torah, all halachic rulings, were given to Moses at Sinai by God and thus are incontestable, and not liable to challenge or modification.  Resh Lakish’s statement appears in different places in gemara, attributed to others, but we also find an extension of it in the Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 2:4) commenting on a verse found in Deuteronomy :”Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: …Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud and Aggada — even that which an experienced student is destined to teach before his master — were all told to Moses at Sinai…”

From the process of discussion and debate that epitomises Talmud, we come to a place of no discussion and of rulings given from “on high” with the barely veiled threat of delegitimising anyone who questions.

It is quite a leap, yet it seems to be one that many barely notice these days. I have lost count of the number of times people have told me – wrongly even in the terms of foundational Rabbinic Judaism – that as a Reform Jew I am not following “real” Judaism, that halachic rulings cannot ever be challenged, that every mitzvah ever is to be found in Torah itself, and every Jew is obligated to follow them all, without exception, (aside from the ones that have to happen within the Temple or the Land of Israel. )

It worries me that Rabbi Akiva has such an ascendancy over Rabbi Ishmael, that Torah is not read as a document for human beings to encounter but only for accepted scholars within an increasingly narrow tradition. It worries me that a hardening has happened so that whereas the Mishnah only documents three “laws given to Moses from Sinai”, by the time we get to the medieval period and Maimonides the laws are codified and fixed, and the tradition of ascribing them as Torah from Sinai is used to suppress debate or challenge.

Torah miSinai to the rabbinic world was not what it means today. The original understanding was that while the Written Torah was given to Moses, the Oral Torah – or rather the authority to create and develop oral torah that would impact on our understanding of written torah – was given alongside it, in order to both bolster the claim to authority of the rabbinic tradition, and also to keep relevant and human a text given in the desert in a particular and ancient context at one moment in time.  Torah mi Sinai became the process, the dynamism, the way we can keep written Torah open to us and our own contexts. So to the Rabbis Torah mi Sinai was the whole range of midrashic exploration, all of  the interpretations, the discussions and the disputes, the variety of recorded opinion, the consensus of each generation as matters became relevant and live to them.  Torah miSinai is contradictory, it is interpretive, it holds opposing and dissonant views, it is alive. This best described in a midrash (Midrash Tehilim (11-14th century) where Rav Yannai taught “Had the words of Torah been given in clear decisions, our condition would have been intolerable. How so? When God spoke to Moses, Moses said “Define the law precisely, leaving no doubt, no ambiguity.” But God answered “follow the majority. If the majority acquit, acquit, If the majority condemn, condemn. Torah is to be interpreted in 49 ways to say something is pure and 49 ways to say something is impure” (12:7)

We are a commanded people. Our text matters to us, we hold it as sacred, we read it and study it and try to ascertain its meaning for us. We must never let go of this, even as personal autonomy takes pride of place in our lives.

Eugene Borowitz spent his life thinking and writing about the dialectic between our commandedness and our sense as Reform Jews of a personal autonomy. He could not square the circle, but he taught that while we have autonomy he insisted that we must confront our Judaism with our Jewish selves, not as “autonomous persons-in-general”. He taught the importance of our decision making based on informed and understood knowledge of our tradition and our texts.  He felt that Reform Jews must be “rooted in Israel’s corporate faithfulness to God” and that this would help structure how we live our lives. Borowitz advocated for the importance of Reform Jews knowing our tradition, interacting with our texts, understanding the historic covenant that Jews have with God. Yet he also wrote  “this does not rise to the point of validating law in the traditional sense, for personal autonomy remains the cornerstone of this piety.”

It is I think harder to be a Reform Jew than a traditional Jew, for we must bring ourselves into the thinking, rather than accept the crumbs offered as “torah miSinai”.

And Borowitz added an extra piece to our work. Whatever we ”do or say in the name of Judaism must be ethical”.  While many see mitzvot as prescribed behaviour, often focusing on the minutiae of ritual activity, we Reform Jews must see mitzvot as behaviour that will bring us closer to God by doing God’s will. We may not follow all of the ritual mitzvot that have developed in Rabbinic Judaism but that is not how we should be defining ourselves – we must define ourselves by what we do rather than what we don’t do. And more than that, anything that we do not do, that may separate us from the weight of traditional consensus, should be understood and considered and be open to revisiting rather than have the door closed on it forever. So early Reformers did not do Purim, seeing it as somewhat repellent, but now almost all progressive synagogues have brought it back. Many early Reformers gave up kashrut as being anachronistic, whereas now kashrut has once again found a home in our tradition, both as normative tradition, and also as an expression of concern for the environment – eco kashrut.

A colleague of Borowitz’, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, also advocated for informed decision making to be a hallmark of Reform Judaism, and challenged us to “ethicize the ritual mitzvot and ritualise the ethical mitzvot”, as in the interplay of Halachah and Aggadah, we need both the practical behaviour and the understanding, the ritual and the ethical driver of the ritual.

We Reform Jews are part of a tradition going back to Sinai – the tradition of Aggadah and Halachah influencing each other, the tradition of commandedness, the tradition of covenant with God. We are part of the tradition that says we must question and know our texts, learn, debate, act.

Tzav – we are a commanded people. We may not be in agreement about many things within this statement but the statement itself stands.

So for we Reform Jews, while we may challenge the idea and substance of the 613 mitzvot, while we may debate the relevance of or even need for  some of the ritual mitzvot, we are part of the system of halachah and aggadah, of mitzvot and Jewish texts. We cannot step away and abdicate responsibility; we must be part of the dialogue. And as we add our voices and our experience to the voice of commandment, to the history of our people, we shall enhance and nourish it, as we ourselves will be enhanced and nourished.

Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will

Ogni tanto dal mondo ebraico scaturisce un dibattito a proposito dell’autenticità, e ci si mettere a discutere su cosa sia la Torà, quali siano le mitzvot e chi abbia il diritto di deciderlo.

Nella parashà Tzav troviamo Dio che dice a Mosè: “Comanda ad Aronne e ai suoi figli di compiere questi rituali”. Segue una descrizione dei cinque sacrifici che i sacerdoti devono compiere, dei limiti del consumo accettabile della carne dei sacrifici e i dettagli su come Aronne e i suoi figli debbano essere preparati per l’ordinazione sacerdotale.

Il potere di quell’imperativo: “Tzav!”, che introduce i dettagli del rituale, trova riverbero attraverso i secoli. Fino ai nostri giorni noi ebrei vediamo noi stessi come precettati e il giudaismo rabbinico si è basato sulla Halachà delle mitzvot, su cosa siano e come adempierle, mentre la teologia ebraica, e il significato del PERCHÉ viviamo in questo modo, rimane essenzialmente nell’area dell’Haggadà.

È la tensione tra questi due modi di “essere ebrei” che ci causa tanti problemi. Per Eugene Borowitz, forse il più influente pensatore ebreo riformato, “Mentre l’Halachà cerca soltanto di definire ciò che costituisce il proprio obbligo, l’Haggadà tenta sovente di fornire il fondamento teologico e storico del dovere ebraico” o, come formulato da A.J. Heschel: l’Halachà diventa un comportamento ebraico mentre la motivazione di questo comportamento è l’Haggadà.

Il modo in cui noi ci avviciniamo a Dio è importante, e sapere che nell’ebraismo c’è più di un modo per farlo offre validità a ciò che sappiamo essere l’ebraismo:  una varietà di modi in cui si può autenticamente essere ebrei, piuttosto che una “ortodossia” dottrinale o comportamentale che già di per sé crea eresia.

L’Halachà dà forma e struttura, ci fornisce un sistema per vivere e al cui interno lavorare. L’Haggadà è più difficile da definire, ma deve esprimere il nostro sforzo illimitato di relazionarci con Dio nel mondo. Essenzialmente l’Halachà,  e il sistema di mitzvot che il giudaismo rabbinico apprezza, ci dà prescrizioni su come comportarci nel mondo mentre l’Haggadà ci aiuta a formulare le nostre aspirazioni per ciò che riguarda la vita, ci aiuta a dare un senso alla nostra esistenza e ci ispira a continuare la ricerca di relazione con Dio.

L’ebraismo rabbinico, nel cui sistema noi tutti ora operiamo, ha avuto inizio come una fusione meravigliosamente dinamica del discorso halachico e di quello haggadico. Il Talmud ne è la sua apoteosi. All’interno del Talmud c’è pochissimo interesse nel proclamare ciò che realmente sia l’Halachà, e, in effetti, una tale sentenza non si trova quasi mai. Abbiamo invece una varietà di opinioni registrate, discusse, confutate o supportate con versetti o insegnamenti biblici, sia all’interno che all’esterno del testo del Talmud stesso, e questa ricca materia prima diventa il fondamento di come l’ebraismo potrebbe svilupparsi. Halachà e Haggadà coesistono in questo sistema, ciascuna informando e arricchendo l’altra, fornendo vicendevolmente equilibrio e dinamismo. I due sistemi iniziarono probabilmente a divergere solo nel Periodo Geonico (circa 600 – 1000 E.V.), e, con la codificazione della Torà orale, troviamo che il sistema dell’Halachà e delle mitzvot diventa rigido e illogico, mentre il sistema haggadico, legato alle emozioni, creativo e ad ampio spettro, spesso viene relegato in uno status meno importante. Tuttavia, come scrisse Heschel: “Sostenere che l’essenza dell’ebraismo consista esclusivamente di Halachà è errato quanto affermare che l’essenza dell’ebraismo consista esclusivamente di Haggadà. L’interrelazione tra Halachà e Haggadà è il vero cuore dell’ebraismo. L’Halachà senza Haggadà è morta, l’Haggadà senza Halachà è selvaggia”.

Noi ebrei vediamo noi stessi come popolo che ha ricevuto precetti e che è coinvolto in un patto, ovvero un popolo che compie mitzvot, che segue le direttive di Dio, con il quale abbiamo un patto di obblighi. Tuttavia non possiamo essere completamente d’accordo su chi stia impartendo il comando, né su cosa siano effettivamente i precetti, per non parlare poi di come dobbiamo adempierli autenticamente.

Chi dà i precetti è il Dio della Torà? E, se sì, quale tra i precetti di Dio nella Bibbia è applicabile anche a noi, per non parlare delle priorità? Chi dà i precetti è il Dio della letteratura successiva, dei Nevi’im, dei Libri Profetici e dei Ketuvim (Scritti)? Chi dà i precetti è la Voce di Dio che discerniamo nelle nostre vite e attraverso le nostre esperienze? È la Voce della nostra tradizione e della nostra storia, la catena di cui siamo solo un anello generazionale? La Voce è emanazione della nostra moderna comprensione etica del mondo? Ci sono tante risposte quante sono gli ebrei che hanno formulato le domande, per usare le parole di Leonard Cohen in “Who by Fire”, adattamento della famosa preghiera di Rosh Hashanà: “E chi dirò che sta chiamando?”

Eppure quella parola ci segue: “Tzav!”  Siamo un popolo precettato e che si è impegnato in un patto.

Come possiamo intenderlo? Mitzvà non significa “la legge”, quantomeno è solo uno dei dieci termini biblici usati per descrivere le regole date al popolo. Nella Bibbia sono presenti  anche “Din”, “Tzedakà”, “Davar”, “Mishmeret” “Torà”, “Mishpat”, “Chok”, “Edut” e “Ot”. Termini spesso usati in modo intercambiabile nel testo biblico, che ci ricordando che le linee guida giungono in vari modi e sono proprio questo: linee guida. Anche la parola “Halachà” deriva dalla radice lalechet, andare o camminare, e la Torà stessa è legata alla parola che significa genitori: le persone che ci guidano e ci aiutano a diventare i nostri migliori sé.

Il rabbino Akiva ben Yosef, grande studioso e Tanna del I-II secolo (la prima generazione di insegnanti), sviluppò l’idea che il linguaggio della Torà sia stato divinamente rivelato, che ci fosse quindi un significato semantico, o almeno un potenziale midrashico, in ogni sua parola e in ogni sua lettera; nulla in essa era stato frutto di un errore o di un’aggiunta: il documento era in ogni senso divino. Il suo collega un po’ più giovane, il rabbino Yishmael ben Elisha, adottò un punto di vista differente: disse che la Torà parla agli esseri umani nella lingua umana, con ripetizioni, metafore e così via. Le opinioni di entrambi trovarono seguito nello sviluppo dell’ebraismo, eppure sembra che la visione di Rabbi Akiva ebbe la meglio nel tempo e che, mentre Yishmael sviluppava i principi per comprendere l’intenzione divina, la nozione di Torà miSinai si sia consolidata nei secoli in ciò che generalmente si intende che significhi oggi: che tutto, dalla Torà alle teshuvot rabbiniche odierne, sia stato rivelato a Mosè al Sinai.

L’origine di questa idea non si trova nella Torà ma nel Talmud: “Rabbi Levi bar Hama disse che Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish disse: ‘Dio disse a Mosè: sali verso di Me sul monte e rimani là, e Io ti darò le tavole di pietra, la Torà e la mitzvà che Io ho scritto per istruirli (Esodo 24:12). Qual è il significato di questo verso? ‘Tavole di pietra’: sono i Dieci Comandamenti; ‘La Torà’:  questa è la Torà (cinque libri di Mosè); ’la Mitzvà’: questa è la Mishnà; ‘che ho scritto’: questi sono i Profeti e gli Scritti; “per poterli insegnare”: questa è la Ghemarà. E ciò ci insegna che erano tutti dati a Mosè sul Sinai” (TB Brachot 5a).

Da questo testo haggadico proviene l’idea che tutto, TUTTI gli aspetti della Torà, tutte le regole halachiche, siano stati dati a Mosè al Sinai da Dio e che quindi siano incontestabili, e non suscettibili di contestazioni o modifiche. L’affermazione di Resh Lakish appare in diversi punti della Ghemarà, attribuita ad altri, ma se ne trova un’estensione anche nel Talmud di Gerusalemme (Peah 2: 4), nel commento di un verso tratto dal Deuteronomio: “il Rabbino Joshua ben Levi disse: … Scrittura, Mishnà, Talmud e Haggadà, anche quello che uno studente esperto è destinato a insegnare prima del suo maestro, sono stati tutti raccontati a Mosè al Sinai … ”

Dal processo di discussione e dibattito che si incarna nel Talmud, arriviamo a un luogo di non discussione e di decisioni date da “in alto”, con la minaccia appena velata di delegittimazione per chiunque faccia domande.

È un bel salto, eppure sembra essere uno di quelli di cui a malapena ci si accorge, di questi tempi. Ho perso il conto del numero di volte in cui le persone mi hanno detto, erroneamente anche nei termini dell’ebraismo rabbinico fondativo, che come ebrea della riforma non sto seguendo il giudaismo “reale”, che le regole halachiche non possono mai essere sfidate, che ogni mitzvà di ogni epoca si trova nella Torà, e ogni ebreo è obbligato a seguirle tutte, senza eccezioni (a parte quelle che devono aver luogo all’interno del Tempio o della Terra di Israele).

Mi preoccupa che Rabbi Akiva abbia un tale sopravvento su Rabbi Ishmael, che la Torà non sia letta come un documento per esseri umani da incontrare, ma solo per studiosi accettati all’interno di una tradizione sempre più ristretta. Mi preoccupa che sia accaduto un inasprimento tale che, mentre la Mishnà documenta solo tre “leggi date a Mosè dal Sinai”, quando arriviamo al periodo medievale e a Maimonide le leggi sono codificate e fissate, e la tradizione di attribuirle come Torà del Sinai sia usata per sopprimere il dibattito o la sfida.

La Torà miSinai per il mondo rabbinico non era ciò che significa oggi. L’interpretazione  originale era che, mentre la Torà scritta venne data a Mosè, la Torà orale, o piuttosto l’autorità per creare e sviluppare la Torà orale che avrebbe avuto un impatto sulla nostra comprensione della Torà scritta, le fu affiancata al fine di sostenere il richiamo all’autorità della tradizione rabbinica e per mantenere rilevante e umano un testo dato nel deserto in un contesto antico e particolare e in uno specifico momento temporale. Torà miSinai è diventato il processo, il dinamismo, il modo in cui possiamo tenere la Torà scritta aperta a noi e ai nostri contesti. Così per i rabbini Torà miSinai era l’intera gamma di esplorazioni midrashiche, di tutte le interpretazioni, le discussioni e le dispute, della varietà di opinioni registrate, del consenso di ogni generazione quando le questioni diventavano rilevanti e vive per loro. Torà miSinai è contraddittoria, è interpretativa, ha punti di vista opposti e dissonanti, è viva. Questo è meglio descritto in un midrash (Midrash Tehilim – 11-14 ° secolo) in cui Rav Yannai insegnava: “Se le parole della Torà fossero state date in decisioni chiare, la nostra condizione sarebbe stata intollerabile. In che modo? Quando Dio parlò a Mosè, Mosè disse: ‘Definisci la legge con precisione, senza lasciare dubbi, senza ambiguità.’ Ma Dio rispose: ‘segui la maggioranza, se la maggioranza assolve, assolvi, se la maggioranza condanna, condanna, la Torà deve essere interpretata in 49 modi per dire che qualcosa è puro e 49 modi per dire che qualcosa è impuro.” (12: 7)

Siamo un popolo che ha ricevuto precetti. Il nostro testo conta per noi, lo riteniamo sacro, lo leggiamo e lo studiamo e cerchiamo di accertare il suo significato per noi. Non dobbiamo mai lasciarlo andare, anche se l’autonomia personale è al primo posto nelle nostre vite.

Eugene Borowitz trascorse la sua vita a pensare e scrivere a proposito della dialettica tra il nostro aver ricevuto un comando e il significato dell’autonomia personale in quanto ebrei riformati. Non ha potuto quadrare il cerchio, ma ha insegnato che nonostante abbiamo autonomia ha insistito sul fatto che dobbiamo affrontare il nostro ebraismo con i nostri sé ebraici, non come “persone autonome in generale”. Ha insegnato l’importanza del nostro processo decisionale basato sulla conoscenza informata e consapevole della nostra tradizione e dei nostri testi. Sentiva che gli ebrei riformati devono essere “radicati nella fedeltà di Israele a Dio” e che ciò aiuterebbe a strutturare il modo in cui viviamo le nostre vite. Borowitz sostenne l’importanza degli ebrei riformati conoscendo la nostra tradizione, interagendo con i nostri testi, comprendendo l’alleanza storica che gli ebrei hanno con Dio. Eppure ha anche scritto che “questo non porta al punto di convalidare la legge nel senso tradizionale, perché l’autonomia personale rimane la pietra angolare di questa fede”.

Penso che sia più difficile essere un ebreo riformato di un ebreo tradizionale, perché dobbiamo concentrarci sul pensiero, piuttosto che accettare le briciole offerte come “Torà miSinai”.

E Borowitz ha aggiunto un pezzo in più al nostro lavoro. Qualsiasi cosa “facciamo o diciamo nel nome dell’ebraismo deve essere etica”. Mentre molti vedono le mitzvot come un comportamento prescritto, spesso concentrandosi sulle minuzie dell’attività rituale, noi ebrei riformati dobbiamo vedere le mitzvot come un comportamento che ci porterà più vicini a Dio, facendo la volontà di Dio. Potremmo non seguire tutte le mitzvot rituali che si sono sviluppate nel giudaismo rabbinico, ma non è così che dovremmo definire noi stessi, dobbiamo definire noi stessi per mezzo di ciò che facciamo piuttosto che di ciò che non facciamo. Inoltre, tutto ciò che non facciamo, ciò che potrebbe separarci dal peso del consenso tradizionale, dovrebbe essere compreso e considerato ed essere aperto alla rivisitazione invece che essere chiuso per sempre. Quindi i primi riformatori non festeggiavano Purim, considerandolo un po’ repellente, ma ora quasi tutte le sinagoghe progressiste lo hanno ristabilito. Molti primi riformatori abbandonarono la Kashrut in quanto anacronistica, mentre ora la Kashrut trova nuovamente posto  nella nostra tradizione, sia come tradizione normativa, sia come espressione di preoccupazione per l’ambiente, la eco-kashrut.
Un collega di Borowitz, il rabbino Arnold Jacob Wolf, sosteneva anche che il processo decisionale informato fosse un segno distintivo dell’ebraismo riformato e ci sfidava a “rendere etiche le mitzvot rituali e ritualizzare le mitzvot etiche”, come nell’interazione di Halachà e Haggadà, abbiamo bisogno sia del comportamento pratico che della comprensione, del rituale e del motore etico del rituale.
Noi ebrei riformati facciamo parte di una tradizione che risale al Sinai, la tradizione in cui Haggadà e Halachà si influenzano a vicenda, la tradizione dei precetti, la tradizione dell’alleanza con Dio. Facciamo parte della tradizione secondo cui dobbiamo interrogare e conoscere i nostri testi, imparare, discutere, agire.
Tzav: siamo un popolo con dei precetti. Potremmo non essere d’accordo su molte cose all’interno di questa affermazione, ma la dichiarazione stessa è valida.

Quindi, noi ebrei riformati, mentre possiamo sfidare l’idea e la sostanza delle seicentotredici mitzvot, mentre possiamo discutere l’importanza o addirittura la necessità di alcune delle mitzvot rituali, siamo anche parte del sistema di Halachà e Haggadà, mitzvot e testi ebraici Non possiamo allontanarci e abdicare alla responsabilità; dobbiamo essere parte del dialogo. E mentre aggiungiamo le nostre voci e la nostra esperienza alla voce del comandamento, alla storia della nostra gente, la valorizzeremo e la nutriremo, poiché noi stessi saremo valorizzati e nutriti.
Ken y’hi ratzon. Possa essere la volontà di Dio

 

 

 

 

Sukkot: the people, the land, the relationships that connect us

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals mandated in Bible, forming a particular cycle of harvest celebrations with Pesach and Shavuot, yet unlike them in the passage in Leviticus which details the festivals, Sukkot is given an extra dimension – it is not only an agricultural celebration but also one that reminds us of the foundational story of our people.  “The fifteenth day of this seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you will keep the feast of the Eternal seven days …And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree (hadar), branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook and rejoice before the Eternal .. You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”  Lev 23:34-43

This explicit link to the exodus, to the people’s vulnerability and dependence on God, brings a powerful richness to our celebration. Unlike the Spring/Summer celebrations of Pesach and Shavuot, with hope and new life bursting forth, the autumnal setting of Sukkot brings intimations of the dark, hard winter days ahead, the leafless trees, the sleeping earth, a quasi-death experience. Sukkot comes six months after Pesach, and it builds and develops the themes of that festival. Unlike the intense dramatic ‘high’ of the plagues and our leaving slavery in Egypt that Pesach provides, Sukkot marks the “ordinary and everyday” struggle to stay alive and safe. It reminds us that our freedoms are fragile, that even basic necessities are not automatically given to us, that life is made up of routine hard graft and of effortful striving. And in this quotidian mundane activity, God is also present, even if less obvious to us.

Sukkot is a festival of autumnal abundance in preparation for months of wintertime scarcity. But at the same time it draws our attention to our two most basic frailties, our need for water (for ourselves and our crops) and for shelter.  The sukkah itself represents the fragility of our homes, with the “s’chach” open to the skies even as the abundant fruit is hanging from it, and the arba’a minim shaken as an almost magical ceremonial to bring rain in the right season.

The four components, held together as they are shaken, are a fascinating concatenation of concepts. Biblically mandated, the palm, myrtle, willow and etrog can represent such a complexity of characteristics. One midrash suggests that together they represent the whole community, all of whom have value and are included in the ritual – the hadar fruit, the etrog, has taste (Torah) and aroma (Mitzvot); the palm has tasty fruit but no smell, (ie represents those who have torah but no good deeds); the myrtle leaves smell wonderful but it has no fruit (mitzvot but no torah), and the willow has neither taste nor smell (no torah and no mitzvot). Every community has people with each of these categories. When we pray before God, each person is important.

Another view is that each one represents a different part of the land of Israel- so the palm tree which loves a hot dry climate grows well in desert areas, the myrtle thrives in the cooler mountains regions, the willows grow only near the streams and waterways that flow all year, and the etrog is most comfortable in the lower coastal areas and the valleys. Israel has a series of microclimates, each represented here.

Or one can understand the arba minim to represent our history from Egypt to settlement: so the lulav would represent wandering in the desert, the willow- crossing the Jordan, the myrtle our settling in the mountains and the etrog the establishment of orchards.

And there is also a midrash that the arba’a minim represents each human being – the palm being the spine, the myrtle the eyes, the willow the lips and the etrog the heart, and we come in supplication to God because we understand how fragile our existence truly is.

Whichever symbolism resonates, the core truth is the same. We are in this world together, our survival is not guaranteed, we need to work together and support each other even as we celebrate a plentiful harvest.  We need to be aware of scarcity, that we can all be affected, that only by sharing and by working together can we create a more harmonious world.

Sukkot is given four names in bible: “Chag ha’Asif”[i] – the festival of ingathering; “Chag ha’Sukkot”[ii] – the Festival of Booths; He’Chag[iii] – THE festival; and “Chag l’Adonai”[iv] the Festival of the Eternal. Of these, the third name – the festival par excellence – gives us most pause for thought, for it reminds us that Sukkot is the most important festival.

Why is this? The symbols of the festival remind us that EVERY person in our society is important; each one needs the dignity of their own home and the security of knowing that basic needs will be met; (Talmud Berachot 57b tells us a home of one’s own increases self-esteem and dignity). They remind us that we are all journeying, that while we may have the illusion of a stable rooted existence, the world turns and our fortunes can turn with it. They remind us that we all have responsibility for the environment and for how we treat our world, that damage to our environment and changes to our climate affects us all. They remind us that we are dependent on factors that are beyond our control. Yet with all of this unsettling symbolism, the rabbis call this festival “z’man simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing, based upon the verses in Leviticus.  Why does Sukkot make us so happy, this festival of wandering and of fragility? I think because it reminds us of our human commonality and the power of human community. We are connected to God and we are connected to our land, we are connected to our foundational stories and to our historic experiences, but for any of this to truly matter, we must be connected to each other.

[i] Exodus 23:16; exodus 34:22

[ii] Leviticus 23.34; Deuteronomy 16:13,16

[iii] Ezekiel 45, 25, 1 Kings 8, 2, Ezekiel 45, 25 and 2 Chronicles 7, 8

[iv] Leviticus 23:39

(written for the “Judaism in 1000 words” section of Movement for Reform Judaism website)

Ki Tavo:

Parashat Ki Tavo opens with two commandments which are connected to the land.  Bringing the First Fruits (known as Bikkurim) (1-11) and the Elimination of Tithes (Biur Ma’asrot) (v12-15).

As one would expect, both of these commandments require action – the first fruits of the ground are to be taken in a basket to God’s designated place, and handed over to the priest there. In the third year the owner of the property must give a proportion of the produce as a tithe that will go to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow.  So far so normal.  But the bible goes on to require speeches to be made while these two  commandments are to be carried out, and, unusually for Torah, it gives the actual texts to be said.  Biblical prayer is usually spontaneous, rising out of the immediate needs of the moment, and rarely recorded in any detail at all, yet here we have two separate declarations given verbatim, and the recital of these two passages have become counted in rabbinic tradition as positive commandments in their own right.

‘Mikkra Bikkurim’, the recital of the declaration of the first fruits, contains within it phrases that eventually were imported wholesale to become part of the Pesach Haggadah, going over the history of the exodus and the terrible painful situation that had preceded it, and personalising that history.  Vidui Ma’asrot, the Confession of Tithes, focuses on the completed observance of the mitzvah of giving tithes, but goes on to ask God ‘s help for the future. These two declarations begin with simple statements of action, but then move way beyond the actual observation of the commandments in the present moment to add meaning and weight.  They don’t stop with acknowledgement, but instead push the speaker and the hearer forward, beyond thanksgiving and into a place of deepened understanding.   Bikkurim takes the speaker into the past, the ancient ancestral past of a time when the land was not so settled and fruitful, of the time of Jewish suffering and slavery in Egypt, and of the redemption from that position.  It roots the speaker in history, and deliberately contrasts the situation of the speaker – their security in their own land, their economic and agricultural prosperity – with the insecurity, poverty and misery of the people in earlier times.

This then is followed by the Vidui Ma’asrot, which ends with the words “look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the land which you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey”

It is a prayer which notes the history – but only in terms of a passing nod to the ancestral promise that God would deliver to them a land fertile and prosperous. More than anything this is a petition for the future, a request for God to pay attention to the land and the people, a wish for a bright and untrammelled destiny.

Four mitzvot are contained in this section.  Two of them require the physical transference of the wealth of agricultural prosperity from their owner to others less economically secure – first the sacrifice of the first fruits of the ground, which is to be given to God via the priesthood of that time; secondly the giving of tithes to those who have no means of supporting themselves – the landless stranger, the ones who have no economic supporter to care for their produce, the Levites.  The food is to be shared out, no-one is to be hungry or uncared for in this system, and no one is to believe that they have absolute rights of ownership just because they are working this land at this time.

But the other two mitzvot are speeches, and they have become far more prominent in the text somehow than the actions to which they refer at the beginning.  The speeches provide a continuum of historical experience; they locate the actions of giving in a system of time and give meaning to the present in a religious dimension as well as a chronological one.  They provide a worship experience almost unprecedented in Torah. But they also provide a context and a philosophical understanding we can learn from today.

Taken together the two speeches trace time and interleave the lonely and painfilled vulnerability of the ‘arami oved avimy father was a wandering Aramean’ – into a world where God can be asked to look after, bless and care for Israel, both people and land.  Simultaneously wealth can be acknowledged and rejoiced over while the reminder of the fragility of any economic security is overtly stated.  A dialectic is set up between the history of Israel and the role of God.  It becomes clear that without full awareness of the history leading up to this moment there can be no understanding of the present, and certainly no awareness of what the future might hold.  Our history impacts upon us and informs our present.  Any awareness of future must be rooted in past as well as current experience.

At its most simple, the thanksgiving and joy for any prosperity of today can only be properly achieved when accompanied by an understanding of past sadness and pain; only by awareness of the depths of depression can one understand the heights of exaltation.  But there is much more to the two declarations than this.  They cry out for us to examine our lives and our history before beginning to draw conclusions about our present existence; to understand where we and others are rooted before making plans for the future.

We are approaching the last week of the month of Ellul, traditionally a time for examining our lives, for considering our situations and for trying to make changes for the better in our existence.  We cannot do this in a vacuum.  We have to take into account our history, all the experiences that have fed into who we are today, the sad as well as the happy, those that cause us pain as well as those of which we feel proud.  We have to accept the reality of what has been our own story, before we can begin to see where we might journey on towards. And like those who declared the Mikra Bikkurim and the Vidui Ma’asrot we have to see the place of other people in our story, and to look for the presence of God in it too, even if only to ask God to notice and pay some attention to our lives.

Looking at the texts of the two prayers, maybe we also have to be able to say that we have taken some action already, have recognised our responsibility to act in our world to make it a better place.  These prayers remind us that while we examine our lives, we must see ourselves as part of a whole greater than ourselves. What we do in the world out there has impact, how we behave towards others matters – and maybe most importantly how we see ourselves in relation to others – and them in relation to us – be it in an historical or a geographical perspective, in a theological or political or even a societal dimension, that is the essence of our understanding.  Our lives cannot be limited to here and now. Our existence cannot be so narrow as only to focus on those we know, or those we care about personally.  Judaism has always taught us to operate in the broader world and at this time, when we are liable to focus down into ourselves religiously we should remember the imperative built into the two declarations which begin the sidra of ki Tavo.

 

 

Shabbat HaGadol:the day to remind ourselves (as we frantically focus down on Pesach preparations) that our world is larger and more complex than we might be tempted to think.

The shabbat before Pesach goes under the name of “Shabbat Hagadol”, the Great Sabbath. It follows a number of special shabbatot, each with its own name and purpose –Shekalim and Zachor, Parah and HaChodesh, each of which is designed liturgically to remind us of something particular, each of which has its own extra torah reading and Haftarah.

Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath, doesn’t quite fit into the pattern.  While it has its own Haftarah from which some say its name is derived  (it ends “hiney anochi sholeyach lachem et eliyah ha’navee, lifnei bo yom Adonai, hagadol v’ha’norah”  Behold I am sending to you Elijah the prophet before the arrival of the Day of the Eternal God, the great and the awesome day (Malachi 3:4-24,23”)  there is no way of knowing whether the name or the reading came first, and truthfully the connection is quite tenuous – to derive the name of the day from the penultimate word of the Haftarah seems unlikely.  So, it doesn’t have an extra Torah reading, and the Haftarah which contains both terrible warning of destruction as well as a prophecy of the redemption at the end of days, is an unlikely contender for the designation of the date.

So what makes this Shabbat Great? Shabbat Hagadol, the great Sabbath?

I’ve heard a number of explanations – always a sign that there can be no certainty – and they range from the quasi historical to the frankly unbelievable.

Traditional commentators explain that the 10th Nissan, the date when the Israelites were to take the lambs into their homes prior to slaughtering them on the 14th of that month, was a shabbat – hence we are remembering the anniversary of that brave act of identification made by the Hebrew slaves after the ninth plague had not yet effected their liberation.  It is a neat suggestion, backed up by some ingenious workings of biblical chronology, but I think at least partially, it misses the point of the naming of this shabbat.  To get a sense of the specialness of this day we need to look not at the particular events of the Exodus, but at the fuller picture of the Jewish year.

There are two shabbatot in the year when it was traditional for the rabbis or scholars of the community to give a sermon.   One was the shabbat before Pesach – Shabbat Hagadol,  and the other was the Shabbat before Yom Kippur – Shabbat Shuvah.  Each of these are the pivotal shabbatot of the Jewish calendar, for they appear exactly half a year apart at a boundary point of the year.  The spring month of Nisan is designated in the bible as the first month of the year, and the autumn month of Tishrei begins the counting of the new solar year.  Both therefore are counted as real new years in our calendar, and so both hold out the possibility of new beginnings.

In both new years there is a tradition of self examination, of clearing out the old disruptive and restraining elements in our lives, and of starting afresh.  Be it the emptying our of the crumbs in our pockets into running water during tashlich as we symbolically get rid of our sins at Rosh Hashanah, or the bedikat chametz – searching for the strategically placed bits of bread around the house with a candle and a feather on the night before seder night so as to be able to burn them the next day, we use the same symbolism to the same effect – we want to be able to start again unencumbered by our past worldly misdemeanours, we want to have a new chance, and the beginning of a year has the right sort of resonance for it.

In the month of Tishrei, along with the festivals of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the eight days of Sukkot our calendar has created  a special shabbat with its own haftarah, where God speaks to us asking us to return – Shabbat Shuvah.   It seems only proper that the month of Nisan should have a special shabbat too, echoing the relationship between God and Israel that will also be so prominent in the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, but weighted slightly differently from the Autumn celebration.

Pesach is a festival that is dedicated to the particular experience of the Jews.  It records our liberation from slavery, the beginning of our journey towards peoplehood, the moment when we embarked on a course that would lead to our encountering God, accepting Covenant, recognising the unity of the Divine.  The Autumn Festivals celebrate not our particularity but our part in a universality – Rosh Hashanah is not the birthday of the Jewish people but of the World, Sukkot is the festival of recognition of the universality of God over all peoples.  Our Jewish tradition values both aspects – the particularity of the special covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and God, and the universality of God being God over all the world – divine creator of all people.

Just as we have two new years co-existing with each other in our calendar, so does our theology allow for two quite different identities – the particular one of the Jewish world and the universal one of the whole world.  The skill is in keeping the balance at all times between what may sometimes be conflicting priorities.  If we become too universalist then we lose our special identity, integrating and assimilating into our context until we become unrecognisable even to ourselves.  If we become too particularist then we block out the world around us, turn our backs on the real and important issues of our context, and deny the greatness and universality of our God by denying parts of God’s creation.  The prophets railed against this; the rabbis planned and manoeuvred to keep seemingly mutually incompatible ideas and circumstances alive and within the tradition.  It is a major triumph of Judaism that it is able to keep conflicting truths within the canon of our teachings and one we must never take for granted.

So both Nisan and Tishrei are new beginnings, yet each has different characteristic alongside the similarity.  Nisan is about the particular redemption of the Jewish people, Tishrei about the universal redemption of the world.  Yet each has a balancing component within it.  In Tishrei we mix into the liturgy a great deal of contemplative and reflective material, and we add a shabbat of particularity – shabbat Shuvah.  In Pesach we act out the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt as though we ourselves were there, but we mix into it an awareness of the pain and suffering of the wider world. We lessen our wine of joy by dropping some out as we recall the sufferings of the Egyptians for example, we shorten some of the Hallel psalms to temper our happiness at the crossing of the Red Sea because we remember the Egyptian pursuers who drowned there.  And we add to our commemoration of our redemption from slavery the oppression of others who are not yet released from their subjugation.  There is a tradition to add to both the symbols of Pesach and the liturgy of its services a wider remembrance of suffering and tyranny.  When I was growing up it was common to have a matzah of hope for Jews in Syria and the Soviet Union, to leave an extra chair and place setting for those who were unable to partake in a seder.  As time passed other things have been added to some sedarim – the orange placed on the seder place for example, to symbolise inclusion; and now the olive being added as a hope for peace for all peoples in the Middle East.

Balancing the universal and the particular, the creation of the whole world and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, is a Jewish life skill.  We are a separate people who are part of the one humanity created by God.  We have a particular covenant which designates particular obligations – mitzvot, with that God and we also know that while our convenant is binding on both parties, God also has other particular covenants with other peoples.  We care about our special identity and need to keep it active, and yet we also care about God’s wider world.  We balance the two parts of ourselves continually, the particularist and the universalist elements are both  legitimate expressions of Jewish thinking, and neither perspective can enable us without the other being somewhere in the equation.

So why Shabbat HaGadol?  It is, I think, the balance to Shabbat Shuvah, the day to remind ourselves as we frantically focus down on Pesach preparations that our world is larger and more complex than we might currently be tempted to think.  If our minds are full only of cleaning, cooking and shopping, we should allow space to consider the purpose of commemorating the festival at all. If we are preparing ourselves for the seder service, we should be looking outside the texts of Egyptian or Roman or Crusader persecution of the Jews and look for more modern examples of oppression and subjugation – both within the Jewish world and outside of it.  Shabbat Hagadol is a day to remember the rest of the world before we immerse ourselves in the particular Jewish experience of an exodus and a liberation that led to our formation as a people.

We are once again, at a new beginning.  It is 6 months since we stopped and really thought about the world and about our part within it, our sins of commission and our sins of omission.  This shabbat before Pesach, Shabbat HaGadol, calls to us now to ask – Have we changed in that time? Have  we responded to injustice or pain around us? Have we followed up the resolutions and vows we made during the Yamim Noraim?  Are we playing a part in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world so as to make it a more godly place?  Do we really care what is happening in our name in the world right now as Jews or middle-class professionals or citizens of Western countries?  Or will we just settle down in our homes to commemorate a historical event in a ritual way, opening the door to the outside only towards the end of our service, for a brief moment of recognition that we are not alone in the world, yearning for Elijah to come and signal the end?

Shabbat Hagadol – taking place in a new month which itself begins a new year refocuses us for a day away from our own historical reality to look at the surroundings in which our present reality takes place. It is truly a Great Sabbath.

Terumah: the Shechinah dwells amongst us but are we driving Her away?

There is no woman in parashat Terumah. Indeed there is barely any human presence at all as the bible instructs the people via Moses about the materials needed to build the tabernacle that will travel with them in the wilderness – the mishkan, and all its vessels and accoutrements.

There is no woman, but there is God, and it is this aspect of God that I would like to focus upon.

In Chapter 25 v8 we read

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם:

And they shall make me a mikdash/special place and I will dwell among them/in them.

The notion of God dwelling among/within the people of Israel is a powerful one, one that removes God from any ties to geography or history, but allows God to move freely wherever the people may be. And this idea of God is given a name, one not found in bible itself but found extensively in rabbinic literature post 70CE – Shechinah.

The Shechinah is an explicitly feminine aspect of God. Whereas many of our other names for God imply transcendence, a God-beyond us, the Shechinah dwells right here where we are. Talmud reminds us that “When ten gather for prayer, there the Shechinah rests” (Sanhedrin 39a, Berachot 6a). That “The Shechinah dwells over the head of the bed of the person who is ill” (Shabbat 12b).  It tells us that wherever we go, this aspect of God goes with us – “wherever they were exiled, the Shechinah went with them” (Meg 29a), and yet this aspect of God also remains in Israel waiting for our return “The Shechinah never departs from the Western Wall” (Ex.Rabbah 2:2)

The Shechinah is experienced by people engaged in study or prayer together, and by people who engage in mitzvot such as caring for the poor and giving tzedakah. It is said that She is the driver that caused prophets to prophesy, that enabled David to write his Psalms. She is the enabler of translating our feelings into words and actions, a conduit to relationship with the immanent God. She is associated with joy and with security. It is no accident She makes an appearance in the bedtime prayer for children – the four angels Michael, Gavriel, Uriel and Raphael invoked to protect the four directions, and the Shechinah to be at the head of the sleeping child.

The Shechinah is the constant presence, the nurturer of the Jewish soul. She is with us in times of joy and she is with us in times of suffering and pain. She connects Creation with Revelation – the universal with the particularly Jewish, the sacred with the mundane.

This week as I was mulling over the sacred feminine embodied in the Talmudic and mystical traditions, I joined in the prayer of the Women at the Wall for Rosh Chodesh Adar, albeit by ipad from thousands of miles away. I sang with them and followed the prayers as best I could, for there was a terrible cacophony picked up by the technology that sometimes threatened to overwhelm this joyful female prayer. Some in the men’s side of the area had turned their loudspeakers directly towards the praying women in order to drown out their song. Some in the women’s side (an artificially inflated crowd of seminary and high school girls bussed in for the morning by their institutions in order to prevent the Women of the Wall getting anywhere near the Wall itself) were blowing whistles loudly in the direction of the women – including the young batmitzvah – who were praying with grace and with joy.

The spectacle – for it was a spectacle – was painful in the extreme. Jews were determinedly drowning out the voices of other Jews in prayer and seemed to think that this was authentic religion, rather than a particularly vile form of sectarianism with little if any connection to any Jewish custom or law.

And it made me think of the Shechinah who never leaves that Western Wall, the remaining stones of the Temple. The Wall itself was built as part of the expansion of the area surrounding the second Temple in order to artificially create a larger flattened area for the sacred buildings above.

According to the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 21b), the Second Temple lacked five things which had been in Solomon’s Temple, namely, the Ark, the cherubim, the sacred fire, the Shechinah and the Urim and Tummim.

It is easy to see that the Ark of the Covenant, the Cherubim, the sacred fire, the Priestly and mysterious Urim and Tummim were lost by the time of the second Temple – they were artefacts which could disappear. But the Shechinah – that fascinates me. The redactor of Talmud, clearly anxious about the statement, continues the narrative by saying that they were not gone, just less present than before.

It is clear to me that the artefacts are gone and lost to history, replaced by our system of prayer and study. But I wonder so about the Shechinah in the light of the events that are now almost normal at the base of the remaining Western Wall.  For while the midrash may tell us that the Shechinah is there, waiting for us to return from our exile; While it may say that She is waiting to be among us, to welcome us, never departing from the Western Wall, waiting to connect us to our deepest selves, to link us to a God of comfort and compassion – if she was, she must have had her head in her hands and been close to despair at what She saw.

When people pray and study together, when they enact law to help the society, when they are sick and frightened and when they are doing mitzvot that bring joy and comfort, there the Shechinah will be. But when they abuse their power, ignore the other, hold only disdain and triumphalism as their values, it is no wonder that the Shechinah finds it hard to hang around. She wasn’t there in the Second Temple, rife as it was with political machinations and abuses of power. And I only caught a glimpse of her yesterday at Rosh Chodesh Adar when so many Jews were at the Wall, but so few were there to pray from the depths of their hearts in joy. I saw her flee from the shrieking women and men determined to drown out prayer. I saw her flee from the passivity of a police force refusing to intervene to protect those who needed their help.

But I saw her in the faces of the group of women celebrating a bat mitzvah together in song and dedication, in the sounds of a young girl reading Torah with grace and mature sensitivity.

http://www.jta.org/2017/02/27/news-opinion/israel-middle-east/hundreds-of-yeshiva-seminary-students-disrupt-women-of-the-wall-service

Shelach Lecha: nudged along the path to beyond ourselves

“And the ETERNAL spoke to Moses, saying:  ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.  And it shall be to you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the ETERNAL, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray;  that ye may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy to your God.   I am the ETERNAL your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the ETERNAL your God.”

It is, maybe, one of the earliest educational strategies – a visual aid to constantly remind one of something important, to teach a constant and immediate awareness of God and of the covenant relationship we have whose conditions – mitzvot – inform every aspect of our lives.

The thread of colour commanded in the mitzvah of tzitzit has long since gone in most ritual garments, since we cannot be sure exactly how to make the dye to create this tekhelet, the blue colour (although in recent years it has made a partial return as some think they have cracked the identity of the chilazon, source of the most expensive colour dye of the ancient world). But the fringes remain – though for most Jews not on their everyday garments, but on the shawls we wear, the tallitot, when we want to make space in our life for prayer.

The idea of the fringes on our clothing is that we will always have with us a reminder of God and of the commandments that we are obliged to fulfil – indeed the fringes are knotted in a particular way to remind us of the number 613, to echo the idea that there are 613 commandments said to be in Torah, so that every time we see them we will remember the covenant and our part in it.  Judaism is a religion of the every day, it is through ordinary mundane quotidian activities that we create the Jewish people, develop Jewish identity.  The fringes on the corners of the garments, the tzitzit, were designed to reinforce this. Whatever we see, whatever we do, there is a Jewish edge to the action, a perspective of obligation and commandment. We are reminded always of the foundation of who we are – we are a covenanted people whose life and behaviour is shaped by the encounter at Sinai, when we agreed to a relationship with God that was to be expressed in how we act in the world.

In the Talmud in a discussion on tzitzit, and on the tekhelet colour mandated in bible, we are told that: “Rabbi Meir used to say: How is tekhelet different from all other colours?  Because tekhelet is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the sky is like [God’s] throne of glory as it says: “Under God’s feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, and it was like the essence of heaven in purity.” (Shemot 24:10)  (Menachot 43b). 

It is a curious teaching. For Rabbi Meir is linking the reminder of the tzitzit not only to the commandments, but also to a sense of God. And he does so by inserting stages of a journey so to speak – He doesn’t talk about tekhelet only as colour, but as the colour first of the sea and then of the sky, and only then of the hidden place of God. He seems to want us not just to associate the colour with God, but to think about the connections between us and God – the sea is a place we can reach and touch, a huge swathe of our world, but ultimately finite. The sky though is untouchable for us, and apparently infinite, and only then do we move on to the “throne of glory” – the exaltedness of God. By making us work, stage by stage, Rabbi Meir is teaching us that we can reach up beyond ourselves to gain some sense of connection – not making a comment on the colour of the universe, or a simple mechanistic connection between the colour on the tallit and the strange description of the sapphire pavement found in the book of Exodus. By making us think, by moving us from the tangible and visible, to the intangible visible, to the invisible infinite, we are being taken on a process and a progression that allows us to think beyond ourselves, beyond even what we can normally imagine.

There is in our tradition another version of this statement of Rabbi Meir’s, which makes the idea of progression even clearer. In Midrash Tehillim we read that the tekhelet “resembles the sea and the sea is like the grasses, and the grasses are like the trees, and the trees are like the firmament, and the firmament is like the radiance, and the radiance is like the rainbow, and the rainbow is like the [divine] image” (90:18).

I like this version because it causes us to not only reach beyond ourselves and our world, but to do so slowly, taking our time, looking from sea level to ground level to tree level to sky and beyond. And in this account there is a punch line:  “Rabbi Hezekiah taught: When the children of Israel are wrapped in their prayer shawls, let them not think that they are clothed merely in ordinary blue. Rather, let the children of Israel look upon their prayer shawls as though the glory of the Presence were covering them.” (Midrash Tehillim 90:18).

When we look at the fringes of the tallit, and we remember the original instruction here in parashat Shelach Lecha, we begin to understand the powerful effect of that colour of tekhelet (which has, incidentally remained with us in a sort of echo form in the variant colours of the stripes of the tallit which can range from almost black to a turquoise-ey sky blue, as can the dye from the chilazon, dependent on the age of the mollusc), and which has progressed from the tallit to the flag of Israel.  By using the thread of tekhelet – and then by using a reminder of the thread and the colour and what it makes us think about– we are bridging a gap between our world and the heavens, between ourselves and God. The radiance we are encouraged to think towards becomes like a rainbow – the perpetual sign between God and us that we are under divine protection – takes us to an almost magical link between the worlds.

When we put on our tallit for prayer and wrap ourselves in the fringes we are, so to speak, putting on the seatbelts, checking the mirrors – readying ourselves for a journey towards God. We are land animals, made of earth, adamah – which root is the origin of the word for the colour red – edom. We are physical beings made from the stuff of our ground says the bible, yet our souls yearn for more – the look to connect to more than the material physical world of now. The tekhelet prescribed in our tradition is a recognition of that yearning, and the offer of a way towards what we want – we can look through the natural world around us and from studying it and appreciating it, we can find a way to the creator of all that we see.

This is how Jewish tradition shapes us and forms us – it takes the everyday and makes us notice more. We are asked not to skim through our lives but to examine them, to consider what we are doing, to aspire for more.  It expects mindfulness and it gives us methods and tools for us to achieve this. But on the way to mindfulness it gives us a more pragmatic approach – the commandments are sets of behaviour that will shape us without us even thinking about it – in effect if we behave like a mensch even without thinking about the ethical imperatives or the spiritual growth, but just because that is what is expected from us, we can live our lives and look back and realise we have become a mensch.  The spiritual journey does not have to be too self reflective, we are nudged along the path with reminders to do, to be, to act – and so, in time, to understand and to become.